Let’s Get Feathering: Sourcing White Bird Feathers for our Research Project

SASSE/SLUICE, 2018, Kate MccGwire,
Mixed media with pigeon feathers, Courtesy of Kate MccGwire and Jo Scott Images

The main artistic medium of the British sculptor Kate MccGwire is bird feathers. Her otherworldly sculptures and installations are made of pigeon, pheasant, crow, or magpie feathers, which are sent to her by farmers, gamekeepers, pheasant pluckers, and racing pigeon enthusiasts. It can take her years to collect enough feathers for just one piece, and months to clean and create an artwork by manipulating each single feather. The artist thinks of those feathers as recycled material, as she uses only molted feathers or feathers from birds shot as agricultural pests.

Like Kate MccGwire, the research team at the American Museum of Natural History was also faced with the challenge of collecting hundreds of unprocessed feathers for our cleaning, pesticide, and recoloring studies. Our feather samples needed to fulfill the following criteria:

  1. White contour and down feathers in pristine condition 
  2. Bio-pigmented contour feathers in pristine condition
  3. All feathers of comparable size and structure
  4. Unprocessed feathers, meaning not washed or otherwise artificially altered

Several options we pursued— acquiring feathers from craft suppliers, organic duck and turkey farms, large poultry farms—turned out to be dead ends.  

We quickly learned that commercially available duck or turkey feathers from craft stores are cleaned and often also bleached, making them unfit for our study. We then contacted certified organic duck and turkey farms in the greater New York region, but because most of the turkeys are bred for Thanksgiving, the timing was too late for our plans. Finally, in speaking to representatives from large poultry farms, we found that they use automatic poultry processing equipment. The processing line includes a scalder, where feathers are soaked in water before they are plucked, and the feathers become unusable for our purposes. 

Finally, in working with the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Ornithology research collections staff, we learned that the department holds a valid New Jersey Salvage Permit and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Purpose Salvage Permit to collect and receive dead birds for scientific purposes. Two species of birds, the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)and the Great Egret (Ardea alba), were of special interest for the project due to their vast number of white feathers. Museum staff put us in touch with The Raptor Trust, a bird rehabilitation and education center in New Jersey. 

We learned from Chris Soucy, executive directorof The Raptor Trust, that the second-largest man-made threat to birds after habitat loss is bird strikes, primarily into skyscraper windows, followed by complex environmental factors including pesticide use, decline in insect populations, and climate change. North America has lost one in four birds in the last 50 years.Chris and his team receive more than 6,000 injured birds each year, only half of which can be rehabilitated and released back into nature. Unfortunately, many cannot be saved. The deceased birds are stored frozen until cremation and some are donated to institutions with a valid permit. 

After a discussion about our research and its goals, The Raptor Trust agreed to make several bird specimens available to the project. Making use of those bird feathers for our research study will support the preservation of bird taxidermy, which in turn will continue to serve as timeless testimony for the importance of wildlife protection

SISSURE (Breach, Chasm, Rift), Kate MccGwire, 2016, Mixed media with goose down and pigeon quills, Courtesy of Kate MccGwire and J.P. Bl


We want to thank The Raptor Trust,Volunteers for Wildlife, Maple Leaf Farm, Lindenhof Farmand the USDA APHIS Wildlife Services (WS) for their assistance on this project.

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